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Making a point, or Making policy

National | Education is not enough: Third-party campaigns serve a useful purpose, but when the time comes to craft public policy, the real work happens inside the two-party system. Take it from a guy who ran for president on a third-party ticket

Issue: "Campaign 2000," July 29, 2000

A tradition has developed at Republican conventions in recent years: Factional warfare breaks out at the convention, often during platform debates, and inevitably, somebody threatens to walk. Often it's the social conservatives, perhaps under pressure to give ground on the abortion plank, for example; and before long, the talk turns to the viability of a third party. I have taken that walk; I was a Republican congressman from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s. I was the Libertarian Party nominee for President in 1988. More recently, I returned to public life in a successful run for the U.S. Congress as a Republican in 1996. What I learned about third-party politics might be helpful here; I learned that a quixotic run can be educational, in the long run, and even enlightening for voters. But under the present system, it cannot be successful at gaining elective office. I became involved in public life to advance a specific set of principles-beliefs beautifully expressed by our nation's founders. It wasn't a career move. Having established myself as a successful obstetrician/gynecologist and having delivered more than 3,000 children into the world, I certainly did not need to go looking for additional labors. I ran because of ideas. I believe the primary difference between the modern era and the founding era is that government, especially the federal government, has taken on roles that were previously filled by families, churches, civic groups, and local communities. My work in Washington has always been aimed at getting Washington out of these functions, by returning power and resources to these other institutions. I left the Republican Party largely because of a sense that the party was moving away from its commitment to limited government. Having been one of the first members of Congress to endorse Ronald Reagan for President in 1976, I was disappointed that during his administration we were failing to reduce the size and scope of government. I decided that if the Republican Party would not cut government under President Reagan, there wasn't much hope that we would do so under a leader less committed to the principles ensconced in the party platform. A disillusioned early Reaganite
Seeing little hope of a real commitment to the reduction in government coming from within the Republican Party, I decided it was time for me to look for another vehicle to spread the message of limited government. In going to the Libertarian Party, I found a body that seemed more strongly committed to the ideal of limited government. I should point out that in changing parties I did not in any way alter the principles for which I stood, and the same can be said about my return to the GOP. My 1988 campaign for the Libertarian Party presidential nomination was perhaps the most difficult in the party's history. That I had been elected to Congress did not assure me the nomination of the party. Native American activist Russell Means was a strong candidate for the party's nomination, and the battle was often fierce. But this was a blessing, too; because of this battle, the media paid more attention to the nomination race, and later to my presidential candidacy. Value of third-party efforts
It's here I learned the real value of a third-party run-at least under the present system. My candidacy allowed me to present a clear agenda to voters. The White House was never really within our grasp; a third-party campaign is seldom designed to seek electoral success. But it is possible to accomplish major educational goals in so-called minor parties. For example, while the Republican candidate was talking about "no new taxes" in 1988, I was able to talk about ending the income tax altogether. And within a few years, we had a chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee actually calling for the same thing. In addition, many of the people I now work with are people I first came into contact with during that 1988 campaign; our alliances were ideological, not political, and that's an important difference. Here is another function that such efforts can play: the location and solidification of the "Remnant." Many years ago a man whom I hold in high esteem, Albert Jay Nock, outlined this function in an essay titled "Isaiah's Job," which is based on the biblical story of Isaiah. "There is a Remnant that you know nothing about," Nock writes (paraphrasing God's directives to Isaiah). "They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society, and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it." But don't look for success-at least not worldly success, Nock warns. "It is not a rewarding job," he writes. "A prophet of the Remnant will not grow purse-proud on the financial returns from his work, nor is it likely that he will get any great renown out of it." However enlightening for the electorate a third-party run can be, it is not likely to be effective at winning offices. There are exceptions, of course. Celebrity candidates (such as Ross Perot or Jesse Ventura) can attract some attention and meet with some success. But by design, the current electoral system hampers third-party runs. Not only do polls and media coverage consistently suggest that third-party candidates are unlikely to be elected, but statutory limitations and a tangle of rules can make it difficult for third-party candidates to qualify to have their names printed on the ballots. I have introduced legislation to pull down some of those barriers. The system for electing people is tilted in behalf of major parties, in general, and toward incumbents in particular. To have further restrictions in place that require third-party candidates to spend a vast majority of their time trying to just get on the ballot serves only to stifle political speech and to limit the choices available to voters. But for now, we still have an environment that tends to discriminate against these minor parties. And that's why I'm back in the GOP. The goal of educating the electorate is a worthy one, but if our desire is to have a more immediate political impact, it seems to me that involvement in one of the "major parties" is essential. Limits of third-party efforts
The clearest example I can provide of this is on the issue of taxes. My opposition to taxes was never clearer than when I was the Libertarian Party's presidential nominee. Yet, it is as a Republican congressman that I have helped revive the tax-cutting fervor of the early 1980s; it is since the Republicans took over majority control of the House of Representatives that we have enacted a series of significant, family-friendly tax cuts, including the per-child deduction. In the year 2000, it is extremely unlikely that anybody other than Al Gore or George W. Bush will be elected president. One of those two individuals will have the power of nominating justices to the U.S. Supreme Court and deciding on whether, for example, partial-birth abortion legislation will be signed into law. Both of these things are so important that education is not enough. Those who would see life preserved, and a riotous court bridled, must seek to be effective.

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